Quincy’s mother had taken his stepfather’s death reasonably well, or so it had seemed, so he was genuinely surprised when Lance Otten phoned in a huff. Otten was his mother’s next-door neighbor, a retired accountant who’d once sued Quincy’s dad over a basswood tree that had toppled across the property line. His call broke the calm of a sweltering Sunday afternoon in late June—less than twenty-four hours before oral arguments in Quincy’s big copyright appeal—a day when Quincy needed a hassle from an overweight bean counter like he needed a turpentine enema. That’s why he’d sent his wife and daughters to the water park in Richmond for the morning, planning to review his case briefs in their absence, but their trip had been cut short when his ten-year-old vomited atop the log flume. Now Gretchen was ensconced at the kitchen table, teaching the girls how to make shaved ice.
“Your Ma’s still out there,” complained Otten. “And let me tell you, it’s no pretty sight.”
“I see,” said Quincy. “I’ll be over as soon as I can. Half an hour, at most.”
“I’m doing you a favor, for old time’s sake. I could have called the cops,” added Otten. “My son and his fiancée are coming for supper. I can’t have some batty old loon flashing her saggy tits in their faces.”
“I said I’ll take care of it,” promised Quincy.
“You do that. Because if you don’t, I’ll have to.”
Quincy hung up the receiver quickly, relieved to be off the line. His wife looked at him with her probing slate eyes, demanding to know the extent of the calamity.
“Mom is sunbathing topless on the patio,” he said.
Gretchen shrugged. “It’s not the end of the world.” Quincy’s wife had been raised in Amsterdam, the daughter of a career diplomat. She had a much higher threshold for shock than the family-oriented denizens of Herkimer Street in Laurendale, Virginia.
The house in which Quincy had grown up, an ornate nineteenth century Victorian with a wrap-around portico and a mansard roof, had initially stood upon several acres of open country near the outskirts of the city, but by the time Quincy’s father had purchased the place—on the same GI Bill that put the elder Quincy T. Marder through law school—the land had been divided and subdivided repeatedly like the cells of a honeycomb. Low-slung, California-style bungalows now crowded the dwelling on three sides. All that remained of the property’s former grandeur was its expansive front yard, fringed with forsythia blossoms and shaded by a luxuriant Dutch elm that had somehow escaped the blight. As a boy, Quincy had lost countless baseballs beneath the dense azalea hedge that encircled the porch; during high school, he’d pledged his love to half a dozen girls on the wrought-iron bench within the gazebo. In the wake of Otten’s phone call, he charged up the flagstone path as though fleeing a bull, unlocked the front entrance with his own key, and crossed quickly through the foyer and dining room to the panoramic plate-glass doors that opened onto the wooden veranda. Sure enough, there was his mother, sunning herself on a chaise-longue with a bottle of imported water in one hand and a romance novel braced against her knees. Ilene Marder-Marcus sported the same lime-green sun visor that she wore for golf, and a pair of perfectly tasteful beige slacks. From waist to throat, she was naked as a jaybird.
Quincy averted his gaze and knocked on the glass.
His mother looked up, startled. When she recognized Quincy, she bookmarked her novel and beckoned for him to join her on the deck. “I didn’t expect to see you today,” she said breezily. “I thought you had a big case.”
Quincy focused his eyes squarely on his mother’s face, but he was unable to prevent her withered bronze body from encroaching upon the periphery of his gaze. In her nakedness, she revealed a complex and intimate history—not just flaccid breasts, but a faded Cesarean scar, the three bleached marks from her gallbladder surgery, angry vestiges of a childhood grease fire that had scalded her left shoulder.
“Can you please put something on?” asked Quincy.
“Good heavens, you’re a prude these days,” replied his mother, but to Quincy’s relief, she slid into a silk dressing gown with a Geisha print. “If you don’t want to see a middle-aged woman au naturel, you shouldn’t sneak up on her.” She tightened the robe’s belt, looping the ends into a bow. “How’s Gretchen? How are the girls?”
“Gretchen and the girls are fine,” said Quincy. “Look, Mom. We really need to talk.”
Quincy drew a deep breath. Reasoning with his mother, he’d discovered soon after he’d learned to form his first sentences, was like straining the Sahara Desert through a sieve. “Lance Otten rang me up this afternoon,” he said. “He’s concerned that you’re—well—he’s upset about you sitting out here topless.”
“That’s what you’re worked up about?” Ilene brushed away his complaint with the back of her hand. “You had me worried it was something serious.”
“This is something serious,” Quincy insisted. “You’re apparently quite visible from his downstairs windows. He’s threatening to phone the police.”
“So let him. Who’s going to arrest a seventy-six year old widow for taking her blouse off in her own back yard?”
Ilene flashed him the same bemused, insouciant smile that had earned her a place on the cover of the May 1952 issue of Harper’s Bazaar—the year before an ambitious and dashing young law student named Marder had carried her off to a backwater university town. On a woman in her seventies, this carefree look struck Quincy as disturbingly unmoored. Behind his mother, a pair of squirrels romped along the branches of a blooming crabapple.
“Please, Mom. Don’t make a life-and-death issue of this,” pleaded Quincy. “The neighbors have rights too.”
“He’s the one making an issue out of this,” Ilene shot back. “You don’t hear me threatening to call in the national guard when he mows his lawn with his shirt off.”
“That’s different.” Quincy felt his frustration mounting. “You know that’s different.”
“How exactly is that different?” demanded Ilene. “Because some Puritan once decided that it’s all right for Lance Otten to wander around town with his pot belly hanging out for all the world to admire, but if I want to enjoy the warmth of the sun on my skin for a few hours before I die, that’s a hanging offense?” Quincy’s mother leaned forward, suddenly grim. “I didn’t sunbathe out here when your stepfather was alive because he asked me not to. Wesley could be something of a prig, God bless his soul. You should’ve seen the look on his face that first time we visited the French Riviera….But I’m on my own now, Quincy Thomas Marder Junior, and I’m going to do as I wish on my own private property.”
Quincy removed his glasses and rubbed the tension from the bridge of his nose. “Well, I tried my best to convince you,” he said.
“Yes, you did,” agreed Ilene. “Now, since you’ve driven all this way, would you like to stay for supper? My mahjongg set is coming over—we’re ordering in sushi from that new Japanese restaurant on Patrick Henry Street—but you’re welcome to join us.”
Quincy shook his head. “I have an oral argument to prepare for,” he apologized. He crossed the deck and, already gripping the handle of the sliding door, attempted one last salvo. “How about if we build a fence?” he asked. “I’ll pay for it.”
“If Lance Otten wants a fence,” Ilene snapped, “let him build it on his property.”
Ilene folded her arms over her chest, making clear that she’d expressed her final words on the subject, and Quincy retreated across the dimly-lit dining room and through the front door of the house. The lush aroma of peonies hung in the late afternoon air. A nuthatch pecked its way down the trunk of the elm. As Quincy was about to unlock the Cadillac, he heard a greeting from the adjoining lot. Mrs. Mahoney, who lived on the other side of Quincy’s mother from Lance Otten, had taught him in the fourth grade.
“I knew I recognized you,” she said. “How’s your mother?”
“Fine. As indomitable as ever.”
“That’s good to hear,” said the retired teacher. “How long has it been? Four months?”
“Nearly six,” said Quincy.
His mother’s second husband had died on Christmas morning. An aortic aneurysm.
“She’s a trooper, your mother is,” said Mrs. Mahoney. “Honestly, I was beginning to worry about her. Sometimes things have a way of unraveling when you’re on your own….I suppose I shouldn’t say this, but last weekend I had my niece and her sons over for a picnic, and your mother was sunning herself topless.” The elderly woman dropped her voice to a whisper when she said the word topless, as though she were saying cancer or divorced. “I don’t want to make a fuss, you understand, but boys that age are impressionable.”
“Don’t you worry,” lied Quincy. “It’s all under control.”
Nothing was even remotely under control, of course, where Ilene Marder-Marcus was concerned, and the following Saturday it was Sergeant Cross of the Laurendale Police Department who telephoned Quincy. The gravel-voiced cop had apparently been out to Herkimer Street that morning, but hadn’t actually seen “the perpetrator” exposed—a requirement for a charge of misdemeanor indecency in Virginia. He hoped that a courtesy telephone call might forestall future episodes. “We’ve received multiple complaints,” he explained. “We’d prefer not to issue a summons, you understand, but this is a family-oriented community.”
“I appreciate the heads-up,” replied Quincy. “It won’t happen again.”
Gretchen entered the kitchen a moment later, carrying a laundry basket. A bottle of detergent crowned the soiled clothes heap like a figurine atop a wedding cake. She set the basket on the countertop and began transferring plates from the sink into the dishwasher.
“What won’t happen again?” she inquired.
“I won’t get a few minutes of peace, that’s what.” Quincy poured himself a glass of Chablis, even though it was only noon. “My mother is entertaining the neighbors again.”
“She’s just trying to reassert her identity,” said Gretchen, who still worked part-time as an adolescent psychologist. “That’s only natural after a long marriage….I’ll never understand why Americans are so uncomfortable with their own bodies.”
Quincy wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist and kissed her on the lips. “You make everything sound so simple.”
“What’s not simple?” asked Gretchen, glowing. “If you don’t want to see something, you shouldn’t look.” She peeled Quincy’s fingers from her hips, as though amused by the antics of a wayward child. “I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that the burden of resolving this ought to fall upon your mother’s neighbors. They’re the ones with the problem.”
“That,” he replied, “is why you’re not a lawyer.”
When considering the matter rationally, Quincy recognized that his mother had the better half of the argument. It was her property, after all. Moreover, while he was certainly no radical—his politics were more “don’t rock the boat” than A.C.L.U.—he didn’t exactly view a glimpse of exposed cleavage as a threat to public morality or the social order. But he also understood that cold logic wasn’t the be-all and end-all in life. What he really could not comprehend was why everybody, on both sides, cared so much—his mother, Lance Otten, the Laurendale police. Didn’t these people have larger fish to fry? For his own part, he had neither the time nor the energy to battle city hall. He’d caught a break when opposing counsel in his copyright case had requested a ten-day continuance, but he wasn’t likely to have such luck again. If he had any chance of winning his appeal, this trouble with his mother required a permanent fix, not merely a patch to get them through another week. Quincy was reflecting on this predicament, nursing his wine and listening to the hum of the dishwasher, when his racing mind stumbled over the roots of a solution. The idea was daffy, yet brilliant. Five minutes later, he was on the telephone with Lance Otten, offering to pay the accountant to construct a fence.
“I don’t know about this,” said Otten. “I don’t want to set any precedents. Once you lawyers gain a foothold, you’ll make off with everything that’s not nailed down.”
Quincy resisted the urge to tell the accountant where to stick his precedents. “I’m trying to find some common ground here,” he persisted. “Consider this a windfall. You name your price—anything reasonable—and we’ll make it happen.”
Lance Otten tossed out a number. It wasn’t a reasonable number—Quincy could probably have raised a dome over his mother’s house at that price—but as the managing partner at Randolph, Marder & Pastarnak, it was a figure that he could afford.
“You drive a hard bargain,” Quincy said. “I’ll write you a check and make the arrangements. Just please don’t tell my mother who’s footing the bill.”
“Here’s a deal for you,” answered Otten. “I won’t tell your Ma, if you don’t tell my ball-and-chain how much you’re shelling out. I love my wife as much as the next guy—don’t get me wrong—but I love my solvency too.”
“Agreed,” said Quincy.
His phone calls to Mrs. Mahoney, and the third neighbors, a Venezuelan starter couple named Arcaya, went far more smoothly. He could have gotten away with paying them far less than he’d paid the accountant, but that didn’t sit right with him, and there was probably a special inferno in hell reserved for men who shortchanged their former elementary school teachers. “I suppose good fences make good neighbors,” Mrs. Mahoney had said—after repeatedly offering to let him erect the fence for free. “That seems like an awful lot of money, but if it’s really the going rate, far be it for me to turn down an honest dollar.” Unlike Lance Otten, Quincy had no choice but to reveal the true cost to his own wife.
“You only have one mother,” said Gretchen. “I’ll start making you a bag lunches.”
That was all the permission that Quincy had required. When he arrived at the office on Monday morning, he personally phoned contractors out of the yellow pages until he found three willing to start work immediately. Each of the fences had to look different, after all, or his mother might suspect a conspiracy. He eventually settled upon a steel-palisade model for Otten’s yard, a dry-stone hedge for the Mahoney’s side, and a traditional red-brick wall to run along the rear border of the property. These barriers were to exceed seven feet in height, and with a few carefully placed merlons in the dry-stone, they would effectively block all of the sight-lines between the adjoining homes and Ilene’s deck.
On Wednesday afternoon, Quincy did a quick drive-by. Already, the ridge of glistening palisades was visible from Herkimer Street. By Friday—the same morning he argued his appeal in the copyright dispute—two of the contractors had completed their labors, and the third had done everything except install a storm lamp requested by the Venezuelans. He was only a few hours away from visiting his mother, a duty he performed every other weekend, when the telephone disrupted his Saturday brunch. Since Gretchen had taken the girls to soccer practice—they were both part of the county summer league—and, as his wife had brought with her from Holland a European-inflected distrust of answering machines, the phone would continue to demand attention until either Quincy or the caller gave in. On the ninth ring, he stuffed the last of his bagel into his mouth and picked up the receiver.
“Quincy Marder?” asked the caller in an anxiety-flushed voice. “It’s Gladys Mahoney. Your mother’s neighbor.”
“Is everything all right?” Quincy demanded, nearly choking. “Is Mom hurt?”
He had feared this call would come someday—but he’d always believed it was still years, and maybe even decades, away.
“Nothing like that, Quincy,” said Mrs. Mahoney. “Nothing medical. But you really should come over here as soon as possible. Immediately, if you can.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“It’s hard to explain over the telephone,” replied the retired teacher. “I don’t mean to sound mysterious, but I think it’s best that you see this for yourself.”
Quincy had witnessed many unlikely sights during his two decades as an intellectual property attorney—including a pair of Siamese twins who’d sued each other over a family barbecue recipe—but nothing had prepared him for the scene he encountered on his mother’s front lawn. At a distance, all that one could see were a handful of women seated inside the gazebo, their straw sunhats poking over the whitewashed parapet. But as Quincy hiked up the slight embankment that elevated his mother’s yard above the street, he realized that three of these four elderly women, including his mother, were naked from the waist up. The fourth, a wizened creature with a frizz of over-hennaed hair, wore a turquoise bikini top that somehow rendered her flat chest even more indecent than the nudity of her peers. Exacerbating the absurdity of the tableau—transforming a moment of precociously senile rebellion into something fit for a Manet canvas—was the nonchalance with which the four women huddled around a folding table swathed with mahjongg tiles. Porcelain tea cups rested on cork coasters. A crystal pitcher of lemonade sat at his mother’s elbow. Quincy’s arrival fell upon this lively affair like a wool blanket onto a blazing fire. One of the topless women reached for her blouse, but Quincy’s mother shot her a fierce glare, and she drew back her hand.
“I figured you’d stop by, sooner or later,” said Ilene. “This is my son, Quincy,” she introduced him to her brood of hens. “Quincy, this is Estelle….and Dora….and Rosalyn. You might have known Rosalyn’s son, Zachary—Zachary Steinhoff—he was in your class at Yale.”
“Yale is a large school,” retorted Quincy, aware of the pique in his voice. He did not wish to be rude to these women, but he no longer possessed the forbearance for pleasantries—–so he decided that the best course of action was to ignore his mother’s friends entirely. “You’ve really crossed the line this time, Mom. Have you gone mad?”
Ilene rolled her eyes. “Did that Otten nitwit call you again in one of his states?”
“Deirdre Mahoney called me,” said Quincy. “Needless to say, she was concerned.” He rested his gaze upon the mahjongg tiles, concentrating on their inscrutable code of circles and Chinese characters. It struck him suddenly that his own mother was a lot like a mahjongg square. “This is not normal behavior and you know it, Mom. Now would you please ask your friends to cover themselves up? At least while I’m here?”
Ilene’s companions looked toward her for guidance, leaving no doubt that they were wholly under her thrall. She flashed a commanding grin.
“You sound like the Hays Code, Quincy. Quite frankly, there was a time not so long ago when an army couldn’t have dragged your tiny mouth from my sore nipples.” Ilene paused for her friends to appreciate her breastfeeding quip, obviously prepared in advance. Quincy felt his chest pounding. “Go ahead and blush,” continued his mother. “But if you’re uncomfortable, you have only yourself to blame.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” replied Ilene, each word animated with displeasure, “that your mother didn’t fall off the hay wagon yesterday. I know who’s paying for those ridiculous walls, and you had no business going behind my back like that.”
“I was trying to be helpful.”
“Well, you weren’t. It’s like a medieval ghetto back there now—not an ounce of sunlight gets in after two o’clock.”
Quincy glanced nervously up Herkimer Street: a Dominion Resources utility truck stood vacant opposite the Carlyle’s driveway; mourning doves perched atop the power lines. It was only a matter of time, Quincy realized, before toddlers on tricycles, or a busload of Cub Scouts, meandered onto the block. “Can we please talk this over inside?” he begged.
The faux redhead in the bikini top cleared her throat, looking anxiously from her companions to Quincy. “Maybe we should be going,” she offered.
“Nonsense, Dora,” declared Ilene. “Estelle, it’s your turn to draw.” “Your old mother’s got a bit of Cole Porter in her,” the woman named Rosalyn explained, as though offering an apology. “She doesn’t like to be fenced in.”
Quincy’s first instinct was to demand the phone number of Mrs. Steinhoff’s own adult son—as though she were a misbehaved teenager to be reported. But these women were grownups, capable of making their own decisions, and he had no more power over his mother than he had over the Queen of England. The truth of the matter was that he’d always been his father’s son: steady and dependable. He’d fallen for Gretchen because, beyond her Scandinavian beauty, she was the sort of rational, even-keeled mate who made the struggle of daily living easier. What compelled other men—his father included—to chase after tempestuous women had always puzzled Quincy, and even in his childhood, his mother’s volatility had frightened him. And now it seemed as though the full force of her youthful caprice, suppressed during twelve years of an autumn marriage to Wesley Marcus, DVM, was roaring forth from behind a makeshift dam. These weren’t matters that Quincy could discuss in front of three perfect strangers, obviously, and while he yearned desperately for a way to break through to his mother, panic rising in his throat, a Laurendale squad car coasted to the curbside.
Sergeant Cross shuffled up the flagstone path. The cop was a pudgy, red-faced old-timer whose professional accoutrements—a belt laced with handcuffs, flashlight and billy club—made him look like a grandfather decked out for a Boy Scout reunion. He shook Quincy’s hand vigorously, as though they’d been school chums.
“Ladies, ladies,” said the sergeant. “You’re binding my hands here. Like I told you last week, Mrs. M., you keep this up and you’re going to face charges.”
Quincy was amazed at the officer’s casual bearing, so different from the hard-nosed sticklers who’d patrolled the town in his youth. “You’ll have to forgive my mother, officer,” he implored. “She lost her husband recently and—“
“Six months ago,” interjected Ilene. “Don’t make excuses.”
“She’s having a hard time of it,” continued Quincy. “I’m sure that when she realizes that she could go to jail, she’ll reconsider her antics. Won’t you, Mom?”
An uneasy silence swept over the yard, punctuated only by the drone of distant traffic from the Interstate. The woman who had previously reached for her blouse, Estelle, held her plump arms in front of her cleavage. Ilene drummed her fingers on the card table.
“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” said the sergeant. “I’m going to take a cruise around the block. A long, slow cruise. I’m optimistic that when I pass by here again, I won’t have any reason to get out of my vehicle.”
“Thank you,” said Quincy. “We really do appreciate it.”
Cross shook Quincy’s hand a second time and departed down the path. Quincy watched the cop’s progress as though tracing the course of a retreating army. Within seconds of his squad car rounding the bend and disappearing behind the Carlyle’s unkempt privet, an orange box-truck rolled down Herkimer Street from the opposite direction. Emblazoned along the side of the truck was what amounted to Quincy’s own epitaph: WRIC-TV RICHMOND NEWS.
Members of the “Gray Solidarity Brigade” began arriving in the early afternoon, mostly well-preserved matrons in their seventies and eighties. Some came alone, peering over the steering-wheels of boat-like Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles more suited for raised blocks in a museum. Others appears in pairs and trios, united for moral support. One lady brought along her husband—a blind psychiatrist with pendulous jowls and an English moustache, who quipped to the reporters, “Lucy said I could come with her if I promised not to look.” By the time Sergeant Cross finally did return—his uniform shirt stained with tomato sauce—more than twenty-five elderly women had joined Quincy’s mother on her front lawn. The newcomers displayed various degrees of undress, many preferring to keep on their brassieres, but at least ten of the protesters were fully topless, including an ninety-one year-old retired librarian from Petersburg who claimed to be a grandniece of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Quincy watched from the porch swing, powerless to intervene.
About an hour later, the first of the distraught children appeared. These were middle-aged men and women, much like Quincy, who’d seen their mothers on the afternoon news, or had received calls from alarmed relatives, and had sped through every stop sign and traffic light between their own homes and Herkimer Street. Each reenacted the same battle that Quincy had fought earlier, pleading and threatening in his or her own distinct way. A few managed to cajole their loved-ones into departing, but the vast majority milled about the yard helplessly, attempting to keep their eyes above the sea of bare, spent flesh. Lance Otten emerged from his bungalow around two o’clock—sporting his trademark navy-blue leisure suit and panama hat—and, ignoring Quincy entirely, spoke for several minutes with several of the dozen officers who had joined Sergeant Cross at a temporary command center under the Dutch elm. This conversation soon acquired a heated tone—Quincy could not hear the words, but saw the anger suffuse across the accountant’s blotchy cheeks—and ended with Otten throwing his hat to the grass in frustration. Meanwhile, Quincy’s mother remained topless, chatting with local reporters, and leading her motley band of followers in a raucous chorus of Marlo Thomas’ “Parents are People.” If Quincy had been watching these events unfold on the television screen, and if Ilene had been some other unfortunate sop’s mother, he probably would have found the spectacle highly entertaining. But—to quote the expression that his elder daughter had picked up at summer camp—if grandmother had testicles, she’d be grandfather.
Quincy didn’t dare approach the police, afraid this might spur them into action. Yet shortly after Otten departed, Sergeant Cross sat down beside Quincy on the porch.
“How you doing?” asked the cop.
“I could be better,” replied Quincy.
“Couldn’t we all.” Cross wiped his brow with his sleeve. “We’re going to wait them out,” he added. “They’ll get tired. They’ll go home. Better than dealing with the logistics of arresting them all. But I’m afraid I’m going to have to issue your mother a summons.”
At least there’d be no S.W.A.T. team. No paddy-wagon.
“What she really needs,” said Quincy, “is a straightjacket.”
“Hang in there,” replied the cop.
Cross patted Quincy on the shoulder and trundled off.
The rain rolled in a few minutes later, an afternoon lightning-squall that started with large, sparse drops than oozed from the sky like molasses. One by one, Ilene’s compatriots retreated to their Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs. Rosalyn Steinhoff’s son hustled off his mother and the woman named Dora under a colossal black umbrella. The Laurendale police offered free rides home to willing protestors who lacked transportation. Eventually, only Quincy’s mother remained, arms akimbo in the shelter of the gazebo. She stood stomach in, chest out, like a military recruit, while the surrounding storm lashed her bare back and cleavage with spray. Quincy sat on the bench beside her, watching the rain soak the mahjongg board. During a lull in the downpour, Sergeant Cross and another officer, a young man with a nickel-sized mole on his cheek, dashed from their patrol cars to the gazebo.
“Okay, Mrs. M.,” said Cross. “We’ve all had our excitement for the day. Now why don’t you go inside with your son, and once you’ve had a chance to put on some dry clothing, Officer Morton here will come back and write you a summons?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” answered Ilene. “It’s a rainstorm, not the apocalypse. Do you expect me to melt?”
“Then I’m afraid I have to place you under arrest,” said Cross. While Quincy looked on dumbfounded, the officer grasped his mother gently but firmly by the elbow, and handcuffed her wrists. “You have the right to remain silent” he added. “We have no way of giving you a lawyer, but one will be appointed for you, if you wish, when you go to court….”
Ilene did not appear fazed. She followed Officer Morton toward the squad car.
“You don’t have to keep your eyes down like that, young man,” she said to the junior policeman. “My bosom won’t turn you to stone.”
The sky responded with a resounding clap of thunder, a celestial sky-quake, as though the heavens themselves were affronted by Ilene’s nudity.
Quincy trailed the convoy of patrol cars to the Laurendale police headquarters, a sprawling and unsightly structure squeezed between Governor Harry F. Byrd Memorial High School and the stately, federalist-style county courthouse. He waited in the lobby while his mother went through booking and fingerprinting, then followed Officer Morton past a series of cubicles into a musty storeroom. Rows of modular shelves contained office supplies of disparate vintages, including stack-upon-stack of unopened carbon paper. Plastic bins held a veritable armada of orange roadwork cones. Ilene sat on a folding chair beneath a small-yet-unbarred window, still bare-chested, her hands clasped neatly in her lap. On the opposite wall hung a katana saber, identified as a gift from the police prefect of Laurendale’s “sister city” in Japan. Not an ideal heirloom, reflected Quincy, to leave within reach of a prisoner. Nearby, a female cop who appeared even younger than Officer Morton—Patrolwoman Barrett—perused a glossy bridal magazine.
“Under the circumstances, Sergeant Cross didn’t think that the holding pen was a workable option,” Morton explained earnestly. “But if you could convince your mother to clothe herself, we would be mighty appreciative.”
If grandmother had testicles, thought Quincy.
He stood in the dim light, waiting for his mother to speak. She didn’t.
“Well, Mom. Are you satisfied?” he finally demanded.
“Actually, I am satisfied,” replied his mother. “Now the courts can settle this business once and for all.”
“There’s nothing to settle. You broke the law.” Quincy circled behind his mother’s chair, so he wouldn’t have to worry about viewing her breasts. “I have no idea what the penalty for misdemeanor indecency is in Virginia, but maybe if you apologize to the judge—and you mean it—you’ll get off with a suspended sentence.”
“I’m not apologizing for anything,” snapped Ilene. “The law is unconstitutional.”
“For God’s sake, Mom. Enough already!”
“The law applies differently to women than it does to men,” Ilene persisted, unperturbed. “You don’t need any Ivy League law degree to realize that’s fishy.”
Quincy had no opportunity to present a rebuttal—to explain that gender discrimination was, in fact, sometimes both constitutional and legal. He’d hardly formulated his thoughts when Office Morton reappeared in the doorway.
“Your bail hearing is coming up shortly, ma’am,” said the cop. “Would you like a few moments to speak with the public defender?”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Ilene. “I already have my own lawyer.”
“And who is that?” asked Quincy.
“You’re my lawyer,” replied his mother, poking him in the sternum. “You created this mess, Quincy Thomas, and now you’re going to clean it up.”
Quincy felt self-conscious about bickering in front of the cops, but the patrolwoman flipped through her magazine pages indifferently.
“This is ridiculous, Mom,” insisted Quincy, his voice soft but indignant. “I’m not even wearing a jacket.”
“Borrow one,” ordered Ilene. “You’re resourceful.”
“But I’m not a criminal defense lawyer,” he pleaded. “I’m not even remotely qualified to handle a misdemeanor charge.”
“A lawyer is a lawyer is a lawyer,” retorted Ilene. “Your father would never have paid for you to go to Yale Law School if he’d known you would end up unqualified.”
Quincy called Gretchen on his cellular phone and implored her to bring his blue suit to the police station as quickly as possible. “Everything is fine. Really,” he promised. “Just my mother being my mother. Don’t turn on the evening news, okay, and I’ll fill you in over dinner.” Twenty minutes later, still looping his tie while he walked, he crossed the varsity baseball field and entered the old wing of the public high school. This is where municipal trials were being held while the county renovated the courthouse. Judge Landau presided over misdemeanor cases in the same gym where Quincy had once played JV basketball. A curtain had been drawn around the court, covered the padded mats, and the backboards had been raised into the rafters, but the three-point line was still visible beneath the attorneys’ benches. What a contrast to federal court in Richmond, where Quincy argued trademark law.
Judge Landau wore a tweed jacket and a bowtie, rather than a robe. He was an egg-bald, bespectacled man in his seventies, who looked as though he’d been roused from a nap. The public prosecutor—a woman half Quincy’s age—asked that bail be set at $500.
“All in due course,” said the judge. “Where is the defendant?”
“She waives her right to be present,” explained Quincy.
“Let the record show that the defendant has waived her right to be present and enter a plea of not guilty,” instructed the judge. “And what say you to $500 cash bail, counselor?”
Five hundred dollars seemed perfectly reasonable to Quincy, far less than he’d squandered walling in his mother’s yard. But he was an attorney, acting on behalf of a client, so his own judgment was of secondary importance.
“With all due respect, Your Honor,” said Quincy. “We’d like to have these charges dismissed at the outset. You see, it’s my mother’s contention that the statute under which she is being charged is unconstitutional and—”
“Hold on a moment, counselor,” interjected the judge. He removed his glasses and wiped them with his handkerchief. “Am I to understand that your client is your mother?”
“Yes, that is correct, Your Honor.”
“Very well. Proceed.”
“It it my client’s contention, Your Honor,” declared Quincy, “that a statute which criminalizes nudity above the waist for women, but not for men, violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” That sounded plausible, he assured himself. When neither the judge nor the prosecutor objected, he elaborated his claim—drawing upon the vestiges of his law school education, citing cases that hadn’t crossed his lips in two decades. He invoked Thurgood Marshall, John Marshall, Blackstone’s Commentaries. He wasn’t 100% certain that he had any idea what he was talking about—but the words rolled off his tongue, point by point, until he’d nearly convinced himself that his poor elderly mother was being done a grave injustice by a retrograde penal code. “So you have no choice, Your Honor,” he concluded, nearly out of breath, “but to honor the principle of gender equality enshrined in both the state and national constitutions, and to declare the statute in question null and void.”
Quincy stopped speaking and looked around. The prosecuting attorney, who he now realized was a law student working under supervision, looked as though she’d been flattened by a fast-moving freight train. One of the bailiffs, an African-American man with a kente cloth draped over his uniform, gave Quincy as discreet thumbs up. Judge Landau stared at Quincy, as though he might electrocute him with his gaze.
“That was quite interesting, counselor,” the judge said suddenly. “Unfortunately, this is not a trial, but merely a bail hearing.” He examined the contents of a manila folder, then reached for his gavel. “The defendant is released on her own recognizance, pending trial.”
“Thank you, Your Honor,” said Quincy.
“And one more thing, counselor,” said the judge. “As a man who has a lovely wife who likes to sunbathe topless in her own backyard, I do wish you all the best of luck.”
Quincy’s mother was waiting exactly as he had left her. Still topless. Still seated erect as a plywood board—a tribute to her modeling school training. Ilene was engaged in a lively chat with a new female guard, a middle-aged officer distinguished by her highly-deficient chin. Quincy handed this officer the magistrate’s order. The cop looked it over carefully, then instructed him to wait with his mother while she completed some essential paperwork.
Quincy slumped on the cop’s stool, depleted. Only a pale film of twilight now filtered through the small unbarred window, and a gray dusk had settled over the storeroom.
“Well? Did we win?” demanded Ilene.
“You’d made bail, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Quincy.
“But the law? Did they declare it unconstitutional?”
“It was only a bail hearing,” he explained. “Not a trial.”
A furrow of disappointment deepened on Ilene’s forehead. “Very well,” she declared. “But don’t you think for a second that I’m giving up.”
She turned her chair to face his, challenging him to cross her.
“I’m sure you’re not giving up,” answered Quincy. “You’ll probably fight your case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. But do you know what, Mom? I don’t care.”
“Don’t mock me, Quincy. It’s unbecoming.”
“No. I mean it.” He stood up, paced across the alcove. “You’re a grown adult. If you want to go topless, that’s your business. If you want to go around town bottomless, that’s your business too. Stage a burlesque show on the steps of the Methodist Church, if that’s what inspires you—but I’m bone tired, and I haven’t seen my daughters all weekend, and I really don’t have it in me to worry about your stunts anymore.”
Quincy met his mother’s harsh gaze. A deadly hush fell between them. After one of the longest, most uncomfortable minutes of Quincy’s life, Ilene looked away.
“Your grandmother, your dad’s mother, she used to call them nice eyes,” said Ilene, seemingly apropos of nothing. “If she wanted to say that a girl was well-endowed in the chest department, she’d say that the young woman had ‘a delightful pair of eyes.’ Alternatively, she might say a girl was ‘not much to look at in the eye department.’ I’d nearly forgotten….”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“So somebody will remember. After I’m gone,” said Ilene—her voice now more wistful than defiant. “Do you know what I was thinking before, while you were in court? I was thinking that, soon enough, there won’t be anybody around who has any memory of what my breasts even looked like.” Quincy’s mother smiled as though this notion amused her. “My breasts will be lost to history—like Joan of Arc’s or Helen of Troy’s.”
Something in his mother’s tone, something sad and distant, made Quincy uneasy.
“Would you mind if I borrowed your jacket?” asked Ilene. “I don’t owe it to anybody to catch my death, now do I?”
Quincy passed her his jacket. The large coat enveloped her diminutive frame. As he watched her fastening the buttons over her pale skin, the realization entered his consciousness that, the next time he saw her naked flesh, she might be lost to him forever. Already, a tiny woman wrapped in a giant cloak, she looked decades older, sexless, nearly lifeless—her body the sort of breathing shell that you might pass on the public street without even taking notice.∎